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A dragoon officer

Letter from an officer in a British Army squadron of dragoons.

17 September 1914

I really must rite (sic) a line: it is so difficult to find time or energy to attend to anything but the immediate. One cannot describe military operations except so generally as to be of no value. We have seen papers to the 7th. They almost make you sick. Make no blunder; the German Army is a magnificent machine which works well. The men are brave and well trained, and the officer’s are masters of war. But they have bitten off more than they can chew. They depend on their officers. We can always force men to surrender when their officer is killed. They depend superlatively on mechanical fire, guns and machine guns, and are adept in their use. But we have certainly got the superiority in morale. The men will cheerfully, with absolute confidence of success take on greatly superior numbers. Out infantry fills me with admiration every day.

The retirement was no retreat to our men: they never looked upon it as such, it was just like maneuvers: you either went forward or back. When the colonel got killed, they got a bit mutinous and were all for going back towards the Germans. The first ten days we had a really hard time: we marched and fought practically continuously for five days. The Colonel reckoned that he and I only had 10 hours sleep (in 8 days). But then one had thirty years of full nights’ rest to draw on. In addition, for 5 or 6 days we got practically no supplies. The cavalry we were with lived more or less on fruit out of gardens and what we could get in the country.

But was had a great time, and it was worth having done it. It is something to have been with a rearguard squadron and seen a whole corps deployed against it. The Germans are really reduced to depend on their guns, and that is bad. The Colonel was killed at Heavy” a German cavalry division with 12 guns attacked. We hung on to the village. It really was a bad time, but it was apparently worse for the Germans, who cleared off and could not get their guns away. I got a guard’s cuirassier’s silver helmet, but lost it. One simply throws everything away. It is so tiring, remaining for many hours with belts and revolvers on and one never sees one’s wagons. One simply puts food and message books in one’s pocket: and patent knives and things that gilded staff officers who live in motors and chateus , carry, one gets rid of at once.

Our work has been so entirely covering advances, or retirements, or filling gaps; there has bee little charging on a large scale. But there has by squadrons. The Germans seldom face our men, and when they do, they are ridden down. Our men are far superior to French and German cavalry, by their ability to gith [fight?] dismounted. We turn infantry out of villages. I have seen a good deal of the French troops, at least more than most. I spent a really thrilling couple of hours in a French battery in action. They are perfectly splendid. They simply love making as much noise as possible, and letting off tornadoes of shells upon any provocation.

I saw a fine attack by Zouaves. I saw the advance of a whole French cavalry corps of 18 regiments and 5000 chasseurs of Algiers, covered by artillery. Numbers make one really quite dizzy to contemplate when one sees a column of German cavalry going along the sky-line for miles and miles. It gives one enormous confidence to think one is shoving them back. They are regularly known as ‘alley mons’.

There is a particular species of shell which is arriving pretty often and which we all dislike. It is termed the ‘coal box;. Partridge and John Norwood were both killed of those you know, we attacking a village across a river. Village fighting is really the devil. However we always manage to give them real hell when they are leaving. The inhabitants have but one tale between them: ‘Tout pille, Monsieur’ by the private soldiers, but ‘les officers sont gentils’. When they pay they do so by cheque on the Bank of France – which shows a sense of humour. However, we will make them endorse it in Berlin!

The papers are full of the most childish stories. Correspondents apparently interview wounded men, who know and see nothing, and invent. An ordinary scrap, when you come up from rear to front, is, first, people smoking and eating and paying no attention to anything. Then highly excited individuals who ought to be in front, will tell you very much what one sees in the newspapers. Then you will find a good deal further on some wounded and dead, and then you come to people who are fighting. At one village we took we had to have a house to house search. Winwood suddenly thought he saw a German disappear into a house: so he and I drew our revolvers and rushed in. No one in the hall, so we burst into the next room, and there found 4 men praying and shaking like jellies. Most of them wept copiously when they found we were English, and offered to show us where quantities of Germans were. Visibly shaking, they led us to a bedroom, where they said one was. We burst in there -- not a soul. Upstairs they would not go because the Teutons were there. We descended with the same result, and departed in a rage. They clung to us, to look in the cellar -- to satisfy them not us. They can become the most jumpy people.

It amused one to see English patrols going about, right out, smoking popes, and French ones with revolvers drawn and point in front of them. The men are very wonderful. Through all the bad time, and I have seen men almost drunk with want of sleep and food, I never heard a groan or complaint, and always ready to gith and to do anything for their horses. As far as horses go, we are the only mounted troops in this part of the world. They cavalry horse are the admiration of the French and Germans. It is interesting to watch a German infantry attack an English one. You can see the German officers sending men on in packets of 8 from the rear, and prodding them with their sticks. I don’t believe any but English regulars could attack in open order like our men. I saw an English brigade attack, and it did make one glad to be English. No one can produce a volume of well-directed fire like our regular infantry. One has learned a lot in this war, tactically and every other way. One makes some real friends and it is all very marvelous to contemplate. One is suddenly convinced of one’s own superiority in men and training as regards the smaller units. But the war is a sort of outside thinking to one. One sees fleeing inhabitants who have lost everything; burning villages, wounded and dead. To the French it is their own people and homes, and it makes them made. We somehow fight on with no increased animosity. It is still somehow like manoeuvres. If we were ordered to retire again tomorrow I don’t believe we should lose morale. I suppose that is the result of a hired army. The French really are giving everything it makes one wonder if people in England realize what the advance of an invading army over a country means.
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